The Irish general election: what’s at stake?

Irish general election

Following the dissolution of the 32nd Dáil (the lower chamber of the Oireachtas, or Irish Parliament) on 14 January, Irish voters will head to the polls on 8 February.

In keeping with the antipathy towards Ireland which is a notable feature of British political culture, scant attention is generally paid in Great Britain to the ebb and flow of Irish politics.

But as revealed in the saga of the Brexit negotiations, politics on this island have a direct bearing on those across the Irish Sea.

The outcome of the forthcoming election could have long-term implications for post-Brexit relationships within and between these islands, and even for the future shape of the British state itself.

The last Irish general election was held in 2016, shortly before the UK’s fateful referendum on EU membership. Since then, party politics in Ireland has been defined by something of a détente in the face of the challenge posed by Brexit.

Across the political spectrum, the parties have been largely united around the aims of protecting Ireland’s economy and the Common Travel Area (CTA), maintaining an open and frictionless land border and, above all, defending the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.

This unity has both built on and helped to buttress the confidence and supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which has kept the Fine Gael-led minority administration in office for four years.

Both parties have also been unified in their desire to see power-sharing restored at Stormont: a feat finally accomplished with the New Decade, New Approach deal.

The passage of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (and its provisions on Ireland/Northern Ireland) through the House of Commons and the return of Stormont combined to catalyse the final breakdown of the confidence and supply deal, and all-but forced Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar to go to the Áras an Uachtaráin (House of the President) and request that President Michael D. Higgins dissolve the Dáil for an early election.

The campaign will be short, and it has already been turbulent. The removal (for now) of the existential issue of Brexit from the political frontline has created new space for other issues to get a hearing.

The government’s record on health and housing has been under particularly intense scrutiny. Ireland’s two-tier health system is under immense strain, with severe hospital overcrowding and waiting lists eight times longer than in the UK, not just proportionally, but absolutely.

The project of constructing a new Children’s Hospital in Dublin has overrun and overspent – to the order of several million Euro.

In housing, rents have soared since 2016. Supply is critically low, and the rate of new building has consistently failed to meet the government’s own targets.

In 2019, the number of homeless people in the Republic of Ireland reached more than 10,000 for the first time in the state’s history. This figure includes some 3,750 children.

Fine Gael’s meaningful policy successes on Brexit and in Northern Ireland – from which key figures including Leo Varadkar and his Deputy and Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, have emerged looking statesman-like – have thus been undermined by key domestic policy failures.

A tragic incident involving a rough-sleeper who received life-changing injuries when his tent was bulldozed from beside a Dublin canal, and a disturbing spike in violent gangland crime in Co. Louth have served to derail the government’s electoral strategy, giving the impression that it has lost control.

This comes after a recent imbroglio over whether and how particular violent events which marked the foundation of the two states in Ireland should be commemorated, from which Fine Gael emerged as out-of-touch with the public mood.

While it is therefore unsurprising that the first opinion poll of the election revealed a huge swing in support towards Fianna Fáil, it remains unclear whether and how the latter can solve the challenges which have bedevilled the outgoing administration.

Ireland’s two biggest parties have broadly similar centrist economic platforms and offer only minimally different technocratic solutions to what are profoundly political problems.

The election is being pitched as presidential in style, with voters being offered two choices: a government led by Varadkar, or one led by Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin.

However, it is likely that around 50 per cent of the electorate will not cast a first-preference vote for either of the two largest parties.

And in Ireland’s proportional electoral system, how these voters break for the smaller parties will play a pivotal role in determining the nature of Ireland’s next government, its priorities and programme.

Hoping to build on its gains in the 2019 European and local elections, the Green Party could become the king-maker in the next Dáil, with implications for the next government’s policy approach, including on transport, energy and the contentious issue of carbon taxes.

The Labour Party will be hoping to regain some of the ground it lost in 2016, when it was punished by voters for its role in a coalition government which imposed some of the harshest austerity measures in Europe.

They are joined by a smattering of other smaller social democratic parties – including the Social Democrats and Solidarity-People Before Profit – and some independents in vying both for the left vote and the chance to influence the next government’s policy agenda.

There this also a diffuse array of small parties and independents on the hard right who are liable to try, and will almost certainly fail, to make immigration a defining issue in the election.

2019 was a difficult year electorally for Sinn Féin, which lost two of its four MEPs and 78 of its 159 council seats. However, it goes into the election as the third largest party, on the back of a rallying by-election win in Dublin Mid-West, and following a return to government in the North.

The party’s 2019 Ard Fheis (conference) re-affirmed its willingness to enter coalition as a junior partner, though both Varadkar and Martin have refused to countenance partnership with a party which is generally understood to retain strong ties to the IRA.

Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald is right to point out the degree of hypocrisy in these refusals: both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have long been pressuring Sinn Féin to go back into government in the North while simultaneously asserting that they are unfit to govern in the South.

Sinn Féin boasts capable spokespeople in key policy areas, with housing expert Eoin Ó Broin providing a particularly prominent example.

Micheál Martin’s aversion to sharing power with McDonald and her party is undoubtedly deeply felt, though it is not necessarily shared by all in Fianna Fáil.

And if it left him in a position to retain power after a bruising election, it might not be surprising were Varadkar to be rapidly disabused of his hostility towards the idea of coalescing with Sinn Féin.

With Sinn Féin pushing for a post-Brexit border poll, any potential king-making role it might come to play in the next Dáil could have long term constitutional ramifications, not just for Ireland, but for the UK too.

By Jonathan Evershed, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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